Shocking Revelation: The Good Men Project’s ethics editor lies to his kids.
One of my favorite childhood memories is of my Uncle Mike coming to our house for dinner. Uncle Mike was a larger-than-life character, a lot like my dad, who commanded people with his imposing presence and, unlike my dad, told “off-color” jokes I was too young to understand. But Uncle Mike wasn’t my dad’s brother or a real uncle—just a close family friend—and Mike wasn’t even his real name. It was Myron. The big deal for me was that Myron owned a toy company, and when dinner was over, I got to go out on the driveway, often in my pajamas and slippers, and pad around to the back of his long, black Sedan de Ville. My mission was simple, if I chose to accept it (which I always did): knock three times on the top of the trunk, then blow twice on the Cadillac logo covering the keyhole. If I performed these actions, in the proper order, without fail the trunk would open as if by magic and I could pick out any toy I wanted from the stash he kept there at all times. There were cap guns and cowboy action figures, die-cast metal cars and trucks, and later, after he bought a Taiwanese bubble business, bottles of bubbles and plastic wands of all shapes and sizes. Myron’s lie about the trunk—of course he tripped it from inside the car while I wasn’t looking—created hundreds of magical Uncle Mike moments that remain unforgettable to this day.
Purely by accident, I developed a somewhat similar ritual with my own children. I have a row of mission-style lanterns going up my driveway set on a timer to come on at night. Occasionally, one of the lights goes out, and I’ve found that by tapping the top with my hand, I can “magically” make it come back on. When I come up the driveway with my boys in the evening and one of the lights is dark, I stop the car and tell them I am going to do “daddy magic.” I get out, approach the light, tap it with a flourish, and voilà, it comes back to life. My 11-year-old has figured out by now that there’s some scientific reason behind the rekindling, but my 7-year-old is still a believer, and big brother hasn’t yet spoiled his fun. Am I lying to my little one about daddy magic? Yes. Is it OK? I believe so.
Another childhood memory, this one not so happy, is of my oldest brother being severely injured while wrestling in his high school gym class. He fractured his fifth cervical vertebrae, which damaged his spinal cord and rendered him paralyzed from the neck down for several months. Eventually through sheer will, rigorous rehab, and a miracle no one will ever understand, he recovered enough mobility on one side to walk, first with crutches, then with a cane and a leg brace. When he arrived at the hospital, the doctors said he would never walk again. But my mother wouldn’t let him hear their opinions, because she didn’t want him to give up the fight. Each time he asked her what the specialists were saying, she didn’t deny the seriousness of his condition, but she lied about the prognosis, while at the same time raising me to believe that honesty was the best policy. Was my mother a hypocrite? I think not. And her lie to my brother? I consider it a glorious act of denial, faith, and ultimately leadership that could hardly be called wrong.
After my brother’s accident, my mother became overprotective of my physical safety. She wasn’t exactly afraid I’d be paralyzed, but her sense of invincibility had been shattered, and she strongly discouraged me from contact sports. As a result, I withdrew from my own physical and athletic presence and power, believing I was a poor athlete when, in fact, I was merely a fearful one.
Reflecting on these memories now as I parent my own children, it occurs to me that while honesty is, under most circumstances, the best policy, there are times when it’s not only perfectly acceptable but eminently advisable and even mission critical to lie to or at least withhold the truth from kids. Most articles on this topic tackle the lies you shouldn’t tell—the self-serving soft white ones that help you control their behavior, shield them from disappointment, or protect you from having to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work. I’m going in the opposite direction. Here are five lies I believe it’s OK to tell your kids and that I actually recommend telling them.
- Magic is real. Magic is the miracle of childhood, and it disappears all too soon. Indulge your kids’ belief in it. Let them marvel at the mystery. Don’t dispel the fog or unmask the illusions. On the contrary—go out of your way to create magic and keep it alive as long as you can. When you welcome magic into your children’s world, you enable them to experience a different and real kind of magic as adults.
- There’s still hope (even when there may not be). Hope is a powerful elixir. It’s both the secret to success and the antidote to despair. When mixed with fortitude, persistence, tenacity, and faith, the resulting alchemy renders a force to be reckoned with. And without hope, the formula for gold remains forever incomplete.
- Everything’s going to be OK (even when you know it may not be). There are times when kids need reassurance in the face of uncertainty. Burdening them with your anxiety, worry, doubt, or concern about undesirable outcomes won’t do them any good. I’m not suggesting you always sugarcoat a bitter pill, but telling your kids you have things under control beats panicking every time. And eventually, even if the worst comes to pass, the worst, too, shall pass.
- There’s nothing to be afraid of (even when there might be). Fearful children grow up to become fearful adults. And fearful adults are crippled in their growth and development by their inability to take risks. Fear magnifies real danger and turns it into perceived danger which in turn shrinks the already cramped comfort zone. Sure, your kid could crack his head jumping off the high dive, but the chances are slim, and the risk of living a small, limited life seems much greater than the risk of getting banged around a bit as we try to enjoy the time we’re given here.
- Honesty is the best policy. Now wait. Don’t call me a hypocrite just yet. As parents, we have our tools of the trade. And just as you wouldn’t hand a sledgehammer or X-Acto knife to your 4-year-old, you don’t want to teach your kids too early that honesty is a relative or situational value, because they lack adult judgment.
The truth is, honesty is important because our children need to to trust us, but they also need to trust themselves, to trust the power of magic to overcome cynicism, the power of hope to overcome despair, the power of reassurance to overcome uncertainty, and the power of courage to overcome fear. And when kids trust themselves, there’s no stopping them. That’s it.
“Oh and Dad?” This is how my younger son interrupts me.
“Just one more thing.”
“Don’t worry about telling us we’re ‘the best.'”
Because kids really can’t hear that enough, ever.
Photo courtesy of author